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Our Modern Existential Dilemma Dissolved With Francis Schaeffer

Our Modern Existential Dilemma Dissolved With Francis Schaeffer

The angst felt by philosophers, the meaninglessness faced by even the greatest modern artists and musicians, and the rampant drug use and trail of despair and nihilism writ large in Western culture since the 1960s are some of the more obvious signs of the crisis faced by modern people. But the cause of this crisis—the existential dilemma of meaninglessness faced by modern man—is less obvious.

Many thinkers have attempted to frame this existential dilemma. But perhaps none have done it so masterfully as American pastor and philosopher Francis Schaeffer (1912–1984) with his two-story house analogy.

Picture yourself living in such a house. Filling every room in this house is everything that makes up your world—everything that makes you you.

However, your house has undergone a very unusual modification: The upper and lower stories have been separated by an impenetrable slab of thick steel stretching infinitely to the horizon in every direction. No staircase, ladder, or manhole connects the two stories of your house.

Schaeffer called this separation our dichotomy—and he argued that this is the angst experienced by people who inhabit the modern West.

What precisely is this dichotomy? In short, a great separation has taken place in our minds between two realms of knowledge.

You are on the lower floor, and you know for a fact the upper floor exists, since half of all that you are exists in that upper floor. But tragically, everything that is upstairs is trapped up there and will never be seen by you again.

In the lower story are what philosophers call particulars, and in the upper story are universals.

Particulars might be described as the diverse array of our earthly experiences: a blade of grass, a law of science, an emotion, or the color purple. A universal, on the other hand, is a transcendent truth that sits above all the particulars, linking them together and making sense of the big picture.

According to Schaeffer, it is only when humans can perceive a unity between the downstairs and the upstairs that we can be at peace within ourselves and make sense of the world in which we live. In fact, so important is this sense of unity for human flourishing that it was the explicit task of philosophers throughout history to discover and articulate that unity, he says.

That is, until the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) came along.

Before Hegel, Western philosophers accepted the law of non-contradiction as a fact of life. They believed it was impossible for something to both exist and not exist at the same time: Something could not be both true and untrue at the same time. Formally, A cannot equal non-A. Or to illustrate, a duck is not not a duck.

Hegel rejected the law of non-contradiction. He insisted that the way we really arrive at truth is by finding a compromise or a synthesis between two contradictory ideas. Hegel’s logic-defying principle set a new course for Western philosophy.

Schaeffer explains that the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) carried Hegel’s ideas a step further. Kierkegaard suggested that if there are things that don’t make sense in the upper story, the way to resolve this is by taking a “leap of faith”—believing in something even if it runs counter to logic. This sounds very simple, even harmless. But its results were profound.

Kierkegaard introduced a separation, not just between universals and particulars, but between faith and reason. As he was a leading philosopher of his time, this idea of his touched all philosophers after him, and it has since been absorbed by our culture at large.

In Schaeffer’s analogy, in the minds of Westerners, reason is now firmly trapped downstairs, and faith is disconnected and on its own upstairs. There is a contradiction between faith and reason that we have simply accepted and decided to live with. This is our “dichotomy”—the dilemma faced by religious and nonreligious moderners alike.

Our dichotomy may not seem to cause too many troubles in our day-to-day lives. But the truth is that it really does hurt us.

In the centuries that have passed since Hegel and Kierkegaard, human knowledge has multiplied beyond what either of them could have imagined. What we now know about the material world—about machines, medicine, mathematics, dinosaurs, deep space, and the double helix—is truly remarkable. But because of our dichotomy, we Westerners have come to see all of this as “downstairs” truth and as somehow separate from faith and spiritual matters.

However, it is more tragic than that still. Given that humanity is part of the material world, we have begun to feel as though we ourselves are trapped downstairs too. We have made a very sobering discovery in recent centuries: We humans are a collection of DNA molecules, just like the plants and animals around us—we are apparently just another “cog in the machine.”

The despair of Westerners is our apparent discovery that man is a machine in a cold, dark universe. We are trapped on the lower floor of our philosophical house. Downstairs rationality has imprisoned us in a suffocating pessimism.

To be sure, many Westerners still hold spiritual beliefs because we all long for transcendent meaning. But faith isn’t what it was before. We now arrive at our beliefs in an entirely different way than how we used to. We no longer have an integrated worldview. We cannot seem to pierce the slab of steel above that separates us from a more hopeful, transcendent perspective on life.

There seems to be only one solution: We must make an irrational “leap of faith” upstairs. This seems like something we can do only in our imagination, a mere optimistic wish. But because a wish is better than the despair of a world without purpose or meaning, we take our leap of faith.

However, Schaeffer gives us a different solution: Reject the dichotomy and the leap of faith altogether—and instead, embrace a cohesive worldview that brings the particulars and the universals together and reunites faith with reason. As he is a theologian and an evangelist, Schaeffer’s solution is to recapture a sense of the transcendent as revealed in the Christian faith.

In other words, the way to find transcendent meaning in life is not to reject the secular in favor of the sacred but to dissolve the wall dividing them.

Schaeffer’s solution is simple enough. Our lifelong challenge, though, in the face of our modern world, is applying it in our daily lives.

Image credit: Public domain

Kurt Mahlburg
Kurt Mahlburg

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  • Avatar
    Stephen Frick
    March 21, 2024, 10:41 am

    Thank you.

    I had known that reason and the laboratory had their limits. With our current science, it requires a leap of faith to believe in souls and God incarnate in a human body.

    I 'feel' better knowing that my secular culture was trying to put a steel floor between faith and reason rather than "embrace a cohesive worldview that brings the particulars and the universals together and reunites faith with reason."

    I believe in the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting – even if current science cannot measure them. I hope to meet God and deceased loved ones in heaven.

    I choose hope over despair. That is the faith that I choose.

  • Avatar
    April 4, 2024, 8:06 am

    Please include more ways of dissolving that wall. Thanks for the article.

  • Avatar
    Lewis Pritchard
    May 19, 2024, 11:35 pm

    nice post


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